An Unshakable Weakness of Being

I spent the better part of a quarter century dealing with dictators and strongmen. I actively fought against one and still wish I could have done the same against another. In both cases intelligence officers, diplomats, world leaders, psychologists, and pundits all assessed their mental states from afar. Kim Jung Il, wearing Charles Nelson Reilly glasses straight from 1970s gameshows, was the crazy son of a communist deity. He was always thought to be striving for his immortal father’s love and was therefore continuously underestimated. Saddam Hussein was an irrational and homicidal maniac bent on nuclear superiority over his neighbors. He was infamously overestimated. Common thought simultaneously held the ideas that both men were detached from reality yet ultimately guilty of all we believed they desired. What other than irrationality could possibly explain their behavior? Perhaps the lessons of dealing with these strongmen can help us understand the actions of the one currently residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Saddam Hussein spent half of my career trying to convince the world that he was developing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (WMD). According to George Tenet, then head of the CIA, he led “…an active effort to deceive U.N. inspectors and deny them access.” He did so for sites he had previously allowed inspectors to investigate. He manufactured evidence of deception. He harassed inspectors. Finally, in 1998, he kicked them out of Iraq for the last time, a sure sign that his weapons program was on track and an enormous threat to the entire world. It wasn’t. It did not then exist.

Now we have a president who fired the FBI Director because of the “Russia thing.” He says he may fire the man now investigating the same. He is actively undermining his own Attorney General, the elf-like man first to prostrate himself before a then vile and unlikely candidate, for not protecting him from this alleged “witch hunt.” He is calling into question the service of the man he appointed deputy director of the FBI. He may pardon himself—though he claims complete innocence—because “everyone knows” he can. His lawyers are digging up dirt to tarnish the reputations and call into question the motives of the team the special prosecutor has assembled when the timing is right (this is the same man who claimed his opponent smeared the reputations of those accusing her husband of extramarital adventures). He uses Twitter to parry real issues and bully his own staff. Lately he has taken to privately calling and berating long-serving and generally respected senators and congressmen and women from his own party for not protecting him from the investigation into why Russia so wanted Donald Trump in the White House. Why would anyone say and do those things if they were not guilty of some high crime or misdemeanor? Why would anyone who has nothing to hide engage in such a way that nearly screams of a guilty conscience?

Saddam did what he did to play to an internal and limited external audience, by which I mean his own people and the microcosm of his Arab and Persian neighbors. He was projecting the only kind of strength a very weak man can. As with all weak leaders there is a bluster that accompanies overinflating every perceived sleight and overdoing every response. Saddam had to appear strong to the disparate peoples he ruled, all with centuries of mutual animosity lightly dusted over and just barely beneath the surface. He also had to appear as an equal to his Persian neighbor to the East with whom he’d fought a bloody, protracted war as part of his rise to power. He had to play the part of the representative Arab being persecuted by a West that was Zionist at its heart, all while appearing strong to the leader of the only cohort of fellow Arabs who had taken up arms against him. The twelve-year pantomime over WMD that followed Operation Desert Storm and ended with Operation Iraqi Freedom played perfectly to those three audiences. It was high drama projected by a rational actor.

President Trump also must play to an internal and limited external audience, both to his core supporters and to the microcosm of allegedly conservative voters who somehow found the dissonance required to vote for him despite what they claimed to value. The 20% of Americans who vehemently support him need to see his so-called anti-political correctness on full display. They are the kind that still show up to campaign rallies and would not change even if the president, as he famously claimed, shot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue. Still, they have to see him defy the norms of public office. They would not mind if he defied a law here and there because he would be sticking it to the Washington and East Coast Elites who are out of touch with “real” America—a remarkably elitist concept in its own right and one we cannot allow to stand unchallenged. He must continue to play to their centuries-old animosities, lightly dusted over and clearly no longer beneath the surface, that remain unenlightened by the progress the nation has made since its Founding, its near cleaving, and its more recent struggle for civil rights.

The president also must appear strong to the further 26% of voting Americans who cast a ballot for him but are moderately concerned about his Twitter habits and the effect they have had on an agenda they thought they voted for—one he never supported in whole and to which, they are now learning, he is in no way tethered. They, however, are so relieved at not having another Clinton in the White House that they are willing to overlook all the issues they said they despised about that possibility. Nepotism. Self-dealing. Foreign governments buying influence. Political corruption. Getting rich from government service. Dynasty. Russian contacts (yes, really). Leaking classified information for the benefit of adversary governments. Consorting with terrorists. And of course, incriminating emails.

The president must continually remind this fraction of the electorate that the “Russia thing” is keeping him from executing whatever singular policy drove them to vote for an old man with a declared sense of entitlement to manhandle women’s genitalia. He must continue to claim he is being repressed by “fake news,” an obstructionist left, and anyone getting in his way of making America great again. This sliver of the citizenry must know that he would be fighting for them if not for these pesky issues of campaign law and his advisors’ deep involvement in Russian state affairs. There is, of course, absolutely no evidence of intent to do the things he promised for this faction in any policy statement or official act to date, save a Supreme Court justice. That is, unless you also believe the killing of a terrorist by a transgender soldier is somehow less righteous than if done by someone with genetically bestowed private parts.

Finally, he must continue to remain aggressive about condemning the investigation into his alleged Russia ties, because to acquiesce and allow it to play out would show weakness in the face of the world leaders from whom he most desires respect—autocrats, dictators, tyrants, and goons. Despite western leaders’ lack of confidence and occasional open disdain for his actions, the West can no more leave the orbit of the U.S. than can the U.S. shake off its long and productive partnerships among the world’s liberal order. Relations will strain, the U.S.’s standing in that order has already been damaged and will fall much farther, but in the end the ties will bind. The president lacks both the background and intellectual curiosity to know or learn this, but he so wants to be respected by those “better leader(s) of their” countries than any previous president has been of ours. To be respected by a theocratic king, a KGB officer cum dictator, or a Philippine mobster is so much more personally satisfying for this president than to be known for his respect for human dignity, the Constitution to which he swore an oath, the rule of law itself, or even the people who put him in office. That is partially because he has no respect for the latter four at all. Remember, he is a man—a gameshow personality—who has spent a lifetime trying to live up to the hard reputation of a dead father. A father who could never show his approval grips a man from the grave in a way that should never be underestimated. That man may never have claimed to be a god but he certainly held that kind of aura for the son who inherited his sizable fortune.

Whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia is an important issue for the nation. The facts are certainly in doubt. That the campaign was more than willing to engage in such collusion no longer is. The president has the emails of his son to thank for that. It would be a sweet irony were it not so sick. Of course, it is still far more likely than not that the campaign, the Trump Organization, and maybe Donald Trump himself colluded with, have unseemly ties to, or are perhaps somehow so indebted to Russian interests that it presents a grave risk to the nation. It is still far more likely than not that individuals in Trump’s orbit knew of and actively encouraged Russian interference in the sanctity of the U.S. election process. But then it was far more likely that Saddam Hussein had a viable WMD program and Kim Jung Il did not.

Saddam’s duping about his weapons programs did not instill confidence in him as a leader of any substance. Neither does the president’s obfuscation and confrontation over his Russia ties. Such are the machinations of a deep and unshakable weakness of being. But they may be evidence of nothing else. In politics and high-stakes international brinksmanship, sometimes there is only smoke. Its source is an apparition, a façade against which frailty is cast as strength and then thrives far longer than it should. Unfortunately, that is the best we can hope for in the president’s obsession with claiming his innocence while acting as though he may have treason to hide.

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Confluence in Charlottesville

The events of 11 August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia were tragic on many levels. First, a life was taken in the name of something the world put down 72 years ago. Nineteen people were injured in the attack. It was terrorism, a term that needs no qualifier, for its practitioners are all equally abhorrent. Similarly tragic is the idea that people with such views feel welcome to come out of the dank spaces they have been hiding in their whole lives. They are emboldened by an administration specifically tailored toward their nativist views and are now basking in the final tragic event of the weekend, the fact that it took the president 48 hours to denounce by name the hate groups responsible for the violent end of the “Unite the Right” protest. It is hard to acknowledge any good could come from such a despicable display of the depths of human nature, but perhaps there is one thing this tragedy highlights that may serve to propel us forward. For once and all, we finally see the dark heart of the movement to hold on to seditionist monuments. This weekend, the flags of two banished hostile powers finally flew seamlessly together.

I moved to Georgia from Virginia during the aftermath of the mass shooting in a Charleston church. That crime was committed by a hate-filled young man seen displaying Confederate Battle Flags and espousing white supremacist ideology in pictures and words released after the fact. He, we were told, was not representative of the crowd who cared only about southern “heritage.” My social media feed was filled with comments by friends I graduated with from high school in Montgomery, Alabama lamenting that it seemed you couldn’t be white, male, and from the south anymore. It was, had I been savvy enough to recognize it, exactly the sentiment our president was tapping into—the self-victimization of a majority class benefitting from the privilege such a station bestows while claiming to suffer persecution as a minority they increasingly claimed to be. It was then with utter shock that I observed a makeshift parade of pickup trucks flying Confederate flags and stopping traffic in Cleveland, Georgia on the 4th of July. Confederate flags on the 4th of July.

In the weeks and months after Charleston, the “heritage not hate” movement became more visible. While South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, took the bold stance of removing the Confederate Battle Flag from the state grounds, other states and cities began similar campaigns. These were met with increasing opposition from groups walking the fine line between recalling history and embracing it. But this movement to remove Confederate statues—really to relocate them to more teachable venues—also raised the ire of white supremacists and nationalists. Ostensibly to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in what is now called Emancipation Park, these supremacists and nationalists descended on the home of the author of the Declaration of Independence and began to publicly defile the cherished content of that document and the very concept of governance it granted to the world.

We are, unfortunately, used to seeing one-time symbols of sedition and treason held up as proud southern heritage. Were what we saw in Charlottesville only that, it would have been bad enough. Here though, for the first time in my memory, was the willful confluence of Confederate iconography with symbols representing the most destructive and immoral foreign power ever to hold a place in the history of humankind. Hitler’s Third Reich purposefully exterminated 12 million human beings. The effort to crush his supremacist views and free the world of tyranny cost 50 to 80 million lives worldwide. Yet here, in the United States of America, citizens of the nation that led the world in the fight against authoritarianism based on racial supremacy marched under the banner of the Nazi flag. They were joined by those carrying Confederate Battle Flags, and now the world need have no more question about the place those symbols should hold in our culture.

There were perhaps as many as 750,000 war dead from the U.S. Civil War, the most of any of our nation’s conflicts. There are those who may rightly claim their ancestors fought with justice and honor on the side of the Confederacy. The separation of jus ad bellum, regarding the decision by a political authority to go to war, and jus in bello, regarding just conduct by military forces in war, allows this seeming dichotomy to exist. It is possible both to fight an unjust war well and to commit war crimes and atrocities in a just war. It is for this reason I can understand those who want respect for the manner in which their ancestors conducted themselves in an unjust war. Such understanding, though, cannot be offered without concession. They must first admit that it was an unjust war, that a war fought for the right to enslave their fellow men and women cannot be justified. They must acknowledge that war as a rebellion against the country they now call home, the country that has granted them the freedom to live on their own merit and without the judgment of the cause for which their ancestors toiled. And they must disavow the symbols of that rebellion and stop clinging to them as representative of their ancestors’ heritage. Those symbols represent the unjustified use of force by a treasonous political authority; they do not represent the just conduct of those who deserve the honor of our memory. The events in Charlottesville should remove any doubt about associating Confederate symbols with honored war dead.

Whether it is “heritage” or a racist symbol is immaterial now. Confederate symbols no longer belong to anyone wishing they could only represent a southern pride. In truth, they have not done so in many years. Those symbols were long ago hijacked by those still fighting for the cause they have always represented. Like it or not, Confederate symbols do represent hate. The world cannot “unsee” what it saw outside the gates of Monticello. Swastikas, the “stars and bars” of the true flag of the Confederacy, and the ubiquitous Confederate Battle Flag are all representative of the same ideas; that there is such a thing as “race,” that those who are white are superior, and that killing for that idea is still a worthy cause.

I have been wrestling with what my grandfather might have thought about seeing a flag he fought against carried down Main Street, USA. From the serenity of the English countryside he flew into the maelstrom of combat over places like Dresden, Schweinfurt, and Berlin. He lost one of his crew and saw hundreds of his countrymen fall to their fiery deaths trying to bomb the Nazi war machine into oblivion. He was 21 years old and in command of 9 men. I think I know what my father would think. His was a flawed war to free Vietnam from the grips of Communist authoritarianism. He was spit on in an airport upon his return, an exercise of free expression the Vietnamese would no longer know. I know how I feel. I spent 25 years fighting tyranny in the Middle East, part of it during another flawed war of choice. I’m more than willing for those here at home to exercise their freedom of conscience and speech, just as those white supremacists were doing in Charlottesville before they turned violent. Brave men and women—men and women far better than they can ever hope to be—gave them that right. When evil is allowed to speak its mind, it clarifies an issue. I encourage such clarification. I want them to have their say, to slide out from under their rock and declare for the world what they really are, to highlight the fallacy we’ve long known existed about how to conceive of Confederate symbols, to finally understand the moral equivalence of all ideologies based on racial superiority. That those who most fervently believe in them freely illustrated that equivalence is a gift we could hardly have dared wish for. Writers cannot be called out for “false equivalence” when the white supremacists made the equivalence themselves.

This we should all now know. If you march under the banner of a hostile power, one the entire world took up arms against or one only the U.S. Army stood against, you are no patriot. You are not representative of the ideals of the nation which has granted you the right to declare yourself an enemy of the state. That you would do so in so blatant a manner is again something we would not have dared dream. But having done so, you are now the most recent reason for the line in the U.S. military officers’ oath that pledges to defend the Constitution against “all enemies, foreign and domestic…” And when you decide to kill innocents, you are no better than any other claiming a divine, or any other, right to do so.

It is for this reason that the response of our president was so inadequate. For a man who cannot find the will to hold back on the most banal kinds of things, to not confront the terrorism and racism that run counter to our being as a nation is simply a dereliction of duty. While I find the actions of the president lacking in the extreme, perhaps the words of another president can move the nation once more to act against an ideology we twice defeated on the battlefield and dreamed we had once defeated in the halls and on the steps of Congress. “…the man who loves his country on it’s [sic] own account, and not merely for it’s [sic] trappings of interest or power, can never be divorced from it: can never refuse to come forward when he finds that she is engaged in dangers which he has the means of warding off.” Those are the words of President Thomas Jefferson, resident of Charlottesville, Virginia.

Our country is indeed engaged in grave dangers. Our president, wallowing in the trappings of interest and power, has proved no ability or desire to ward off such dangers. In fact, he has stoked them at every turn. It falls to us then, as President Jefferson knew it always would, to stand against the dangers to our republic. One person died this weekend under the boot of the racial superiority proclaimed by both Nazism and the Confederacy. Let there be no more. 80,750,001 is enough.